Mechanical Engineering i2.002

Teaching a core required class to students at any distance

The opportunity:

The Mechanical Engineering undergraduate student is presented with an increasing number of valuable academic opportunities beyond the campus. While the department supports such activities, most required courses are only available on campus.

In parallel, the flexible 2A curriculum, which allows students to pursue specific “tracks” of knowledge and create a customized degree, envisions increased modularization of the mechanical engineering curriculum.

The combined goals of remote student participation and modularized course components sponsored an experiment in delivering a core mechanical engineering class to both residential and off-campus students.

The experiment:

In Spring 2012, 2.002 was offered concurrently to both remote and residential MIT students. Ten percent of the class participated remotely—from Spain, Puerto Rico and California—and these students were held to the same academic standards as residential students. The experiment has just concluded and evaluation by the Teaching and Learning Laboratory is ongoing.

To support the remote students, all lectures, recitations, labs and review sessions were recorded and posted for viewing on the same or next day. Each remote student was provided a scanner for sending in assignments and exams, and an online discussion forum provided a channel for student interaction.

Areas of innovation:

Participating faculty agree that a core mechanical engineering course can indeed be taught successfully online. With the proper support, tools and materials, Mechanical Engineering can offer an entirely online course without any reduction in quality or standards.

Course materials were modularized into an introductory core and four major components (plasticity, viscoelasticity, fracture & fatigue, and rubber). After completing the core module, students should be able to study the remaining components in any order.

Online content played a key role. The accelerated availability of online lecture and lab videos, indexed by topic, enabled remote students to share a similar learning experience to residential students.

Online discussion supported significant levels of class interaction (130 questions solicited 450 responses). It linked residential and remote students in one community, and served as the primary channel for remote students’ questions.

Sustainability considerations:

Two new roles—beyond the traditional course staff—proved essential to the successful delivery of a concurrent residential/remote course:

  • An Online Instructor, who supports and interacts with remote students, providing online office hours and serving as their point of contact.
  • An Educational Technology Coordinator, who manages the delivery of technical services—tools, platforms, and content.
    Two key platforms were essential to providing an integrated learning experience: Piazza (an online discussion platform) and MIT TechTV (for video delivery).

Future directions:

The faculty currently provide most course materials through blackboard-based lectures. Interactivity and remote participation could be improved with more digital course material and restructured class sessions.
The faculty would like to experiment with course modularity, using the core and interchangeable modules.

The Online Instructor role could transition to existing roles within the department and the Educational Technology Coordinator role could be provided by a core MIT service.

This project was supported by the MIT Office of Educational Innovation and Technology and was one of the experiments in course modularity conducted by the MIT Council on Education Technology in 2011-2012 with funding from the Class of ’60.
Written by Mark Brown

Chemistry Bridge

Modules for self-paced learning and review of complex and recurring core concepts

“Chemistry Bridge will allow digital resources to complement what I do one-on-one”

—John Essigmann, Leitch Professor of Chemistry and Biological Engineering

The opportunity:

Across the sciences, certain key concepts have traditionally proven challenging for students at all levels. These concepts are typically taught in introductory classes, but faculty must review them repeatedly in advanced classes across the curriculum. The Chemistry Bridge project is developing self-paced modules to assist mastery of these key concepts outside the classroom setting. The modules can be used independently by students, or as a faculty tool to supplement instruction.

The project:

Students visit the Chemistry Bridge web site (currently under development) and take a “pre-test” to assess their understanding of the subtopics that constitute a core concept. Upon submitting their responses, students are presented with a “learning pathway”—a curated set of web sites, videos and simulations that have been selected to address that student’s learning goals. After completing the steps in the pathway, the student takes a “post-test” to assess how well they understood the concept.

Areas of innovation:

These modules are expected to advance teaching and learning at several levels:

  • They provide a model and potential platform for creating self-paced, customized learning pathways that allow novice and advanced students to better understand and master key concepts.
  • They will improve efficiency by reducing the repetition of core concepts in advanced classes.
  • They promote community curation of a set of existing web-based teaching materials that best explain the concepts.


The project is developing modules in the areas of:

  • Buffers
  • Electrochemistry and Redox
  • Quantum Mechanics

The key concepts are drawn from:

  • 5.111 – Principles of Chemical Science
  • 5.12 – Organic Chemistry I
  • 5.60 – Thermodynamics and Kinetics

Sustainability considerations:

The selection and creation of each new module initially requires a collaborative effort among faculty and domain experts to identify key concepts and their constituent subtopics.

Populating each new module requires a set of informed content aggregators (the project is working with advanced MIT undergraduates) who curate the best online teaching materials.

The tool that delivers the learning experience will require technical support and feature improvements to support evolving community needs.

Future directions:

Although the tool is still under development, targeted for a Fall 2012 launch, the following future efforts have been identified:

  • Feature refinements following usability testing with students.
  • Expanding the number of modules to include other key concepts.
  • Forming partnerships to implement the modules across Chemistry, and adapting the tool for use in other departments.
This project was supported by the MIT Office of Educational Innovation and Technology and was one of the experiments in course modularity conducted by the MIT Council on Education Technology in 2011-2012 with funding from the Class of ’60.
Written by Mark Brown

Aeronautics and Astronautics: 16.20 & 16.90

Moving from lectures to interactive class sessions while enabling remote student participation

The opportunity:

Two trends drive a growing interest for creating more flexibility in the Aero/Astro curriculum. First, undergraduate students can participate in an increasing number of valuable academic opportunities beyond the campus, but most required courses are for residential students only. Second, Aero/Astro faculty increasingly consider the use of “active learning” methods in class to be an effective pedagogical technique.

In recognition of these trends, Aero/Astro faculty hypothesized that “a learning model, emphasizing active student-instructor engagement, coupled with student preparation, can be effective for achieving subject learning objectives for students both on-campus and of-campus.”

The experiment:

In Spring 2012, two Aero/Astro courses (16.20: Structural Mechanics, and 16.90: Computational Methods for Aerospace Engineering) implemented several significant changes to the typical lecture-homework model. The experiment has just concluded and evaluation by the Teaching and Learning Laboratory is on-going.

Faculty oriented class activities around mini-lectures, focusing on topics that proved to be challenging to students, and collaborative sessions, in which students worked on problems or programming assignments together. Students were expected to review course notes before attending class. Students were also given the option of attending class remotely.

Areas of innovation:

Participating faculty from both courses felt that the experiments exceeded their expectations.

Participants agreed that increased interactivity made the class sessions more valuable learning experiences. Typical student comments noted that: “Every class is like office hours with the professor” and “The class knocked down barriers. If I don’t get it, I can ask”.

The use of embedded quizzes within the online pre-class material in 16.90 provided a dual benefit:

  • Faculty could tailor class interactions around the material where students’ results showed an inconsistent or incomplete understanding of key concepts.
  • Students appreciated immediate feedback on their grasp of the material, and came to class better prepared.

Class discussions were broadcast live via web-based videoconferencing enabling local and remote students to share the same class experience. Student remote participation was voluntary and typically 10% per class, with a different set of students choosing to remotely participate for each class.

Sustainability considerations:

These experiments were notable for their use of relatively simple and low cost technologies:

  • 16.90 used a project developed tool for embedding questions into online course material, then scoring and sharing the results.
  • Remote participation used web videoconferencing technology (MIT-supported WebEx or Adobe Connect) and a tablet PC or electronic whiteboard (Mimio) for note-sharing.

Future directions:

Given the success of this experiment, Aero/Astro is considering the following future options:

  • Expanding this model to more “professional area subjects” (junior and senior elective courses) in order to support off-campus opportunities.
  • Developing more embedded quizzes within pre-class material.
  • Exploring the MITx platform to provide a long-term supported infrastructure.
This project was supported by the MIT Office of Educational Innovation and Technology and was one of the experiments in course modularity conducted by the MIT Council on Education Technology in 2011-2012 with funding from the Class of ’60.
Written by Mark Brown